John McNaughton’s first Hollywood horror story–the ordeal he had to go through to get his low-budget first feature out of limbo and into distribution despite a prohibitive X rating–is well-known among local film people. When Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer finally made it into theaters, it had already been an underground hit for years, its reputation made on the circulation of bootleg tapes. Chicagoan McNaughton was able to get work on the basis of that unreleased film–was even considered a hot prospect–but if he thought his movie-business problems were behind him, he soon learned otherwise. His second feature, The Borrower, has been plagued with its own agonizing series of delays. Completed more than two years ago, it begins its commercial release tonight at the Music Box.

Having completed Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, his filmed record of an Eric Bogosian performance, scheduled for release this September, McNaughton is now in town filming his first studio feature, Mad Dog and Glory, starring Robert De Niro. He’ll be at the Music Box to mark The Borrower’s premiere in person.

The film’s knotty history goes back to April 1987, when Atlantic Releasing Corporation, a subsidiary of Atlantic Entertainment Group, made a bid to distribute Henry that fell through when the MPAA handed down the X rating that made it unreleasable. At the time Atlantic and Kushner-Locke, a production company that worked in low-budget television shows like Divorce Court, were developing an original script by Sam Egan about an alien who sets down in LA and “borrows” people’s heads in order to survive. McNaughton was asked to direct it, and preproduction began in August 1987. Three weeks in, Atlantic exec Bill Tennant began voicing doubts that the movie could be made under the $2 million ceiling that had been set for it. Atlantic halted preproduction, commissioned a feasibility study, and asked McNaughton to shoot the first three pages of the script to see if it could be done on budget.

“There were a lot of visual effects,” recalls McNaughton, “and Atlantic brought in this hotshot production manager who’d done some low-budget movies, and he said it was no problem doing the film for $2 million, and there was no problem shooting these three pages. This production manager scheduled us for 11 hours, which was pretty stupid. We ended up shooting 23 hours; most of the effects didn’t work; it was probably the worst experience of my life.

“I was being paid by Kushner-Locke. I had an apartment and a car, and I finally finished this three-minute piece. By this time it was the holiday season, and I told them I wanted to go home for the holidays. They said, ‘Fine, just give us the keys to your apartment and car, and don’t come back.’ This was after not having paid me for eight weeks. I went to New York, and the next day Bill Tennant [from Atlantic] called me and said, ‘We saw the test, and we like it, and we’re trying to get this property away from Kushner-Locke.’ They asked if I was still interested in directing it, and I said yes.”

McNaughton brought in his usual collaborator, Steven A. Jones, to produce (along with Atlantic exec R.P. Sekon, who’s now producing director of Remains Theatre) and the Organic Theater’s Richard Fire, who had cowritten Henry and an unproduced screenplay with McNaughton. Fire and McNaughton did seven rewrites on Egan’s original script before Atlantic approved the production. (Egan was so upset over the changes, he insisted on appearing in the credits under a pseudonym.)

The next battle was over the location. McNaughton and Jones were pushing hard for Chicago. They scouted sites and hired local actors for secondary roles. “We were ready to shoot and at the last minute, for a number of reasons, Atlantic insisted we shoot it there. The line producer, Elliot Rosenblatt, campaigned hard for LA, arguing we didn’t know anything.”

Shooting on The Borrower finally commenced in Los Angeles on Halloween in 1988. It features Rae Dawn Chong and Don Gordon as cops, and Chicago actor Tom Towles, who also starred in Henry. When shooting began, new problems erupted in the form of friction between Chong and McNaughton. “Yeah, we didn’t get along at all,” McNaughton says. “She’s very astute, and she read the script and immediately said, ‘The monster is the star,’ and she was right. This was like Henry; to me it’s a much more interesting way to tell a story.” Chong wasn’t impressed. “She wanted her character to be the star. We had to do a lot of rewrites for her, and I don’t think it helped the movie at all.” (In June 1989 Chong appeared on the Arsenio Hall show and said working on the movie was “a horrible experience.”)

Halfway through principal photography, line producer Rosenblatt, Atlantic’s man in charge of nuts and bolts, fired cinematographer Julio Macat; McNaughton says he wanted to bring in his choice, Robert New. “They said Julio was too slow, but we were only one half day over schedule,” McNaughton says. “By the time we were finished, we owed four days. It was a vile, utterly bullshit thing to do.

“I really liked Julio. He and his crew didn’t have a hack mentality, and Elliot Rosenblatt didn’t understand anything else.”

Even Sekon concurs that it was a mistake hiring Rosenblatt: “He didn’t have the experience for that position, and I take the blame for that.”

McNaughton and company wrapped the film in the last week of December 1988 and headed to Chicago’s Zenith/db Studios for postproduction. En route, McNaughton says, they discovered that Rosenblatt was trying to stop shipment of the footage and other elements to Chicago. Sekon intervened and postproduction began, but before long Atlantic had shut down most of its branch offices, including Chicago.

McNaughton says Atlantic’s financial trouble had been apparent to him. “I’d walk through their parking lot and see all these expensive cars, these Mercedeses and BMWs, and I knew we were the only film in production, and our $2 million horror film was going to support all of this,” he says. The film’s insurance company gained control of the movie and announced they were going to finish it as cheaply and quickly as possible. McNaughton was able to complete the film to his satisfaction, but then there was a new problem: by June 1989, Atlantic was no longer functioning as a distributor, so “they were going to try and keep the film as an asset, as something they could sell,” McNaughton says. “And until the bankruptcy judge ruled on it, the film couldn’t be shown”–not even to McNaughton’s friends. The movie languished, and McNaughton and Jones went on to other projects.

This April, through a complex set of events, The Borrower was acquired by Cannon Pictures, which showed almost total indifference to it. Word of mouth was getting around, however, and the film was programmed into the Seattle film festival, where McNaughton and Jones saw it projected for the first time. The film will also be shown in September at the Toronto film festival. Chuck Parello, who works for McNaughton, is trying to get commercial bookings in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. “They [Cannon] don’t know what they’re doing with it,” Parello says.

The Music Box even paid the $1,500 necessary for Cannon to acquire a new print, because there were only two worn-down work prints they could have shown otherwise. “I don’t think anyone at Cannon has even watched the film from beginning to end. I don’t understand their motives, but they could make some nice money off of this film,” McNaughton says. Cannon has sold the video rights to Warners Home Video, which is planning an October 23 release.

McNaughton, Jones, and Towles will attend the first screening of The Borrower at the Music Box, tonight at 10. It will screen again at midnight, then tomorrow at 10 and midnight as well. Then, starting Sunday, nightly screenings are at 10 through Thursday, August 22. Starting next Friday, August 23, it will show at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays at least through September. The theater is at 3733 N. Southport, and admission for first-run movies is $6. You can get more information at 871-6604.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.